Archive for December, 2012

Blog Highlights for 2012

This Eastern Fence Lizard was a new species in our yard this year.

This Eastern Fence Lizard was a new species in our yard this year.

Happy Last Day of 2012, everyone — unless you live in New Zealand or other countries where 2013 has already arrived. Here in my patch of southeastern US Piedmont, we were treated to a spectacular final sunrise of the year. A cold front is just arriving from the west, and a high-altitude wind is pushing herds of puffy sheep clouds across the sky from west to east.

When I looked west early this morning, the silvery sheep were nearly invisible in a lilac sky. But as I followed the herd across the sky to the east, they began to glow pink, as light from the rising sun reflected on their undersides. Turning to the ridge line that marks our eastern horizon, the sky was aflame with deep reds and oranges, reflecting fire onto the water of the creek. The cloud sheep in the east were peach and pink puffy masterpieces. Along the far south horizon, one sliver of vivid turquoise colored the sky where clouds had not yet arrived. The sun topped the horizon, and the colors muted to pastels as the sky directly above me deepened from lilac to azure. An eye blink later, the show was over as the sheep coalesced into a solid sheet of gray.

The rain won’t arrive until tomorrow, so the weather seers predict. The blanket of clouds will keep midnight revelers warmer than last night. Temperatures here fell to nineteen degrees Fahrenheit before the clouds showed up. Personally, I think a wet start to the new year is most auspicious. The drought here has lingered for most of the past decade. I estimate it would take an inch a week for the entire year to bring my area back up to the water levels it once enjoyed.  Here’s hoping we all get the weather we need in 2013.

Meanwhile, the folks at WordPress have been hard at work crunching year-end statistics for my little blog. As I did here last year, I thought I’d take a quick look at which posts you folks read most frequently.

First, let me remind you that I began this blog in January of 2011. Today’s post makes the 251st entry since I started. For 2012, this is the 73rd new entry. These new entries include 460 new photos.

This year, the day with the most page views was March 29, when the blog attained 208 views in one 24-hour period. I have no idea what happened that day, but I suspect someone in the Webiverse with readers linked to this site, resulting in the astonishing increase in traffic. The most popular post that day was a piece I wrote about my Loropetalum shrubs. Here’s the link, and here is that often-viewed photo of one of the shrubs in full bloom.

Loropetalum 'Zhuzhou Fuchsia'

Loropetalum ‘Zhuzhou Fuchsia’

It does make quite an impact, doesn’t it? This year, the most frequently viewed entries were all posts I wrote in 2011, and all but the first one dealt with specific plants in my garden, which reinforces the fact that most of you find my blog while searching for information on specific plant-related topics.

Top posts from last year include:

Going deeper into the most-viewed list reveals the top five entries written this year:

Personally, I was gratified that my posts on invasive exotic species were sought out frequently. This issue will only increase in significance in the coming years, so I’m glad folks are starting to pay more attention to this growing threat to our native ecosystems.

At this moment, my blog has been viewed 46,952 times since the first entry — 11,732 views in 2011, and 35,220 views in 2012. Average views per day in 2011 totaled 33, but climbed to 96 views per day for 2012. I think this is pretty good for a blog I’ve never advertised. I attribute the increased numbers to diligent tagging, enabling search engines to find relevant posts.

I can’t end this retrospective without acknowledging the amazing self-described “happiness engineers” at WordPress.  Their work to continually enhance and improve the functionality of their blogging software is most appreciated by this writer. Just this month, they’ve added a new statistic to the mix. I can now differentiate between the number of daily visitors and the number of daily views, thereby allowing a calculation for average views per visitor. Most interesting! And I must give a shout-out to Happiness Engineer Bryan, who through a series of e-mail exchanges, politely and patiently walked me through how to use some new functionality their interface now offers. Thanks again, Bryan!

And many thanks to my readers, especially those of you who take time to comment on my offerings. It is gratifying to know that sharing my gardening obsession is perhaps of some utility to others out there. I hope we can continue to help each other as weather challenges mount and new plant varieties arise.

Of course, the imminent arrival of a new year also brings a new gardening season. I’ve already placed my seed/plant orders, and I’ve been mentally building a to-do list so that the garden will be ready when planting time arrives. I’ll share my thoughts about all that in an entry next year.

Meanwhile, I wish all of you a Happy Gardening New Year!

R. flammeum 'Scarlet Ibis'

R. flammeum ‘Scarlet Ibis’

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December Flowers

Flowering Apricot perfumes winter breezes.

A flowering apricot perfumes winter breezes.

One of the many advantages of gardening in the southeastern Piedmont region of the United States is the relatively mild climate. We get our share of mornings in the teens and twenties in winter to be sure, but the soil rarely freezes, and certainly not for long. By choosing the right plant for the right spot, gardeners in my region really can have blooms in their yards every month of the year.

Both of my just-beginning-to-bloom plants are not native to my region. These ornamentals come from Asia, but neither has ever demonstrated any invasive tendencies. I confess I’ve forgotten the cultivar name of the flowering apricot (Prunus mume) in the top photo. Despite benign neglect on my part, it has thrived for over a decade beneath a canopy of mature loblolly pines. Its fragrance is pleasantly sweet, without the undertones of cinnamon that characterize my other P. mume (Peggy Clarke).

The show looks likely to linger quite a while.

The show looks likely to linger quite a while.

This small tree is sited near my driveway, where I must pass it to retrieve my mail. It began blooming two weeks ago, and I’ve been making a point of stopping on my way up and back from the mailbox to deeply inhale the scent of these delicate-looking flowers. By the number of buds still present, I predict I have at least a month more of flowers from this tree.

January Jasmine beginning to bloom a few weeks early.

January Jasmine beginning to bloom a few weeks early.

Also just starting to bloom: January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). I first fell in love with this sprawling yellow-flowering low shrub when I saw it draped artfully over a rock wall at a local college campus.  The stems are evergreen, but they must not be tasty, because my neighborhood deer have always ignored my specimen despite easy access.

Some folks mistake this shrub in bloom for our ubiquitous forsythias, because the arching branch growth pattern is similar, and the flowers — from a distance — resemble this more common ornamental. But no forsythia I know blooms in December or January, and most years, not even late February. If you live in the Piedmont and see a yellow-blooming shrub with arching branches this time of year, odds are it is January Jasmine.

This shrub will be covered in sunny flowers in another week -- if ice stays away.

This shrub will be covered in sunny flowers in another week — if ice stays away.

January Jasmine needs room to sprawl. Rock walls make excellent supports and also provide a warmer microclimate as the rocks hold on to the heat from weak winter sunshine. I had no convenient rock wall, so I let my shrub form a natural mound that had widened over the twenty years since I planted it. Last year, Wonder Spouse and I severely pruned it back to prevent it from crowding out the daffodils planted near it. This indestructible plant responded by blooming more vigorously than it has in recent years. It will peak in another week or so, as we enter its namesake month. The bright yellow flowers offer no scent, but the flowering apricots more than compensate for that in my yard.

Coming attractions...

Coming attractions…

Last but never least, my other flowering apricot cultivar, P. mume ‘Peggy ‘Clarke,’ will be bursting into rosy-petaled, cinnamon-scented glory any minute now. It always opens a week or two after the pink one, even though both of my Peggy’s are sited in warmer microclimates. I know they are worth the wait, and you do too, if you’ve read my earlier entries here and here.

I read a disheartening article today about the latest gardening trends noted by the horticulture industry in the United States. According to their research, younger generations confine their gardening efforts to a few pots on their patios, having no interest in doing anything more than “mowing and blowing” the rest of their yards.

I hope this isn’t really true. You can’t grow flowering apricots or January Jasmine in pots on your patio. But I promise you, the winter flowers they give you in exchange for a few hours a year of work are worth every drop of sweat and sore muscle accrued on their behalf.

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Why I Garden

2-July 25 harvest

For Food

One of the great pleasures of gardening for me is the delicious food I grow. From seed to harvest, I control what goes into these beauties, and food I grow myself always tastes better than anyone else’s. Growing my own food almost always ensures I’ll have extras to share. It’s a good feeling to drop off a load of excess tomatoes and squash at my local food bank, or gift a foodie friend with a taste she will never otherwise enjoy.

2-chocolate cherry sunflower close

For Wildlife

Attracting pollinators makes sense when you’re trying to grow food requiring pollination, but I work hard to create habitat that’s inviting to a diversity of creatures. From butterflies:

2-red admiral2

to dragonflies:

IMG_3706-1 Dragonflyto lizards:

2-anole2and spiders:

2-lantana weaver

and even the occasional wild turkey.

IMG_3749-1 Wild Turkey

All are welcome on my five-acre patch of Piedmont.

For Beauty


I am not handy with a needle and thread, paintbrush, potter’s wheel, or any other artist’s tool. But I think we all share the urge to create beauty. Of course, I’m not really the creator of this magic, but I like to think of myself as a collaborator. I work hard to put the right plant in the right place, ensuring that every addition has the best chance possible to thrive and be beautiful.

For the Surprises

2-anole sunning

The little guy above was enjoying unseasonably mild temperatures yesterday, catching a few rays on the dark wall of my garage. I confess seeing a little head poking out at me from beneath the siding startled me a bit. Most of the surprises are courtesy of the creatures with whom I share my space.

Surprises bring out the child in me, the wonder of finding something new and unexpected, like a Luna Moth:

IMG_3008-1 Luna Moth

a Rainbow Scarab:

IMG_5210-1 Rainbow Scarab 1

or a Snapping Turtle lumbering across the floodplain in search of a good spot to lay her eggs.

IMG_3789-1 Snapping Turtle

Each discovery makes me giggle like a girl, delighted to greet an unexpected wonder during my wanderings around the yard.

For Connectedness

2-tomato area

Plunging my hands into fragrant, loamy earth centers me. Coaxing seeds in flats in the greenhouse during chilly late winter days ties me to the coming growing season while winds howl and frozen ground crunches beneath my feet.

2-basils and peppers

For Reassurance through the Constancy of Change

Staying close to the cycles of the earth, from spring’s fresh enthusiasm:

2-late crocus

to summer’s overwhelming productivity:

2-sweet treats

to autumn’s glorious farewell displays:

Plumleaf azalea close

to winter’s quiet, meditative landscapes.

IMG_7474 Birds birds everywhere and not enough to eat

I am immersed in Life’s cycles, making it easier for me to remember that even the most horrible acts of mankind will not stop the Earth’s turning, the green growing. Life overcomes and persists. Sunrises follow sunsets. I am comforted by the changing constancy that surrounds me.

The longest night approaches. Tomorrow’s sunrise will bring our shortest day, as the solstice ushers in Winter’s light.  As a gardener, I know this dark, cold season is as necessary to the Green World as springtime.

Embrace the darkness, my friends. Tomorrow marks the return of lengthening days and the promise of spring songs and flowers. Meanwhile, enjoy the beauty that only a winter sunrise can offer.

Winter Sunrise over Piedmont Forest


Love in the Air: American Mistletoe

American Mistletoe reigns over the winter forest.

American Mistletoe reigns over the winter forest.

It’s invisible during the growing season, lost in the myriad green leaves of its host trees. But when those deciduous leaves color and fall to earth, the evergreen clusters of American Mistletoe reveal themselves to all who cast their eyes skyward. According to Weakley’s Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, American Mistletoe’s scientific name is Phoradendron serotinum ssp. serotinum, but you’ll see it often listed by an older name, Phoradendron leucarpum. Some folks call it Oak Mistletoe, after one of its favorite host tree species.

Over 100 species of deciduous trees have been noted to be hosts for American Mistletoe, but you most often see it around here on oaks, maples, and sometimes hickories. My American Mistletoe, in the photo above taken this morning before the clouds departed, is not growing on any of those species. Instead, it is happily established on a lichen-covered Honey Locust that I planted years ago in the hopes of providing more food for wildlife through its flowers and seedpods. The tree hasn’t thrived, but it stubbornly persists, each year playing host to more life in the form of various lichens, and the parasitic American Mistletoe.

About a month ago, my Mistletoe was in full bloom, although the small yellow flowers are hard to spot.

About a month ago, my Mistletoe was in full bloom, although the small yellow flowers are hard to spot.

As I read up on this plant, characterized by botanists as a subshrub, I discovered some disparities among the experts regarding American Mistletoe’s parasitic nature. Many claim that this plant, which lives by sending root-like structures into the tissues of its host tree to extract water and nutrients, is purely parasitic, and if many plants establish themselves on one tree, eventually fatal to their host as they drain it of life. However, other experts note the plant’s evergreen leaves and stems, pointing out that, during winter, Mistletoe is actively photosynthesizing, thereby creating its own food. And it’s not impossible to believe that some of those synthesized nutrients may actually go to the host tree during the winter season.  I think perhaps this is more speculation than tested fact, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and may perhaps explain why American Mistletoe can persist in a tree for decades without any obvious damage to its host.

This somewhat blurry shot is my attempt at a closer view of the inconspicuous flowers.

This somewhat blurry shot is my attempt at a closer view of the inconspicuous flowers.

Europe has its own species of Mistletoe, but our American species is fairly similar. Both produce waxy white berries. The European version is more poisonous than our species, but even American Mistletoe can be dangerously toxic. All parts, especially the berries and leaves, are poisonous. As is true for many poisonous native plants, American Mistletoe was used to treat a variety of ailments by Native Americans. However, extracts from the plant derived for experimental cancer drugs have proved too toxic to be useful, so I don’t think anyone should try using this plant for more than ornamentation.

Vivid against a winter-blue sky, American Mistletoe is Love in the Air.

Vivid against a winter-blue sky, American Mistletoe is Love in the Air.

Fruit-loving birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds, are responsible for spreading these plants from tree to tree. The berry pulp is extraordinarily sticky, readily adhering to beaks and feathers. As birds wipe their beaks on branches to remove the pulp, they may deposit a seed in the crack of a branch, where it can germinate and penetrate its host. Another avenue is bird droppings. Some evidence suggests that the fruits pass very quickly through avian digestive tracts, increasing the chances of seed deposit on an appropriate host tree, since the birds don’t travel far before making that deposit. Caterpillars of the Great Purple Hairstreak are only known to dine on American Mistletoe, which is just another reason to welcome its presence on your deciduous trees.

A quick survey via your favorite search engine will provide you with several proposed mythical origins for the tradition of kissing beneath Mistletoe. I suspect the tradition became associated with the Christmas season because this plant is so much more noticeable in winter’s barren landscape.

However the tradition came about, spotting a green orb of American Mistletoe high on an otherwise leafless tree in winter seems an excellent excuse to steal a kiss from someone you love.

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